Mexican attorney on interrogating El Chapo: He ‘owned the prison’

Posted at 4:34 PM, Apr 10, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-10 18:34:25-04

By Rafael Romo

Senior Latin American Affairs Editor

MEXICO CITY (CNN) — José Antonio Ortega arrived early to his 10 a.m. appointment.

The criminal attorney was ready. He had everything he would need, including his briefcase with all the documents pertaining to the case. He wasn’t nervous. He felt more than prepared, but he wondered.

Would the suspect cooperate? Would he provide any meaningful new details that would help him solve the case?

All of a sudden, he got a phone call. It was a prison official saying the inmate was not ready. Ortega would have to wait a while longer. The hours went by.

By the time he got a call from the same prison official saying the hearing could proceed, it was well past 10 at night. A full 12 hours had passed since the scheduled time.

Ortega’s first shock was that he and an associate weren’t taken to the room where hearings were normally conducted, but to a room right next to that of the prison’s director, where a clerk was already setting up his printer and computer for the hearing.

The door opened and the inmate finally appeared. It was Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. He cracked a smile as if he were attending a social gathering and greeted everybody in the room.

The date was March 16, 2000. Guzmán was then a prisoner at the Puente Grande federal prison near Guadalajara, Mexico, where the hearing was taking place. He had been in federal custody since June 9, 1993, after being captured in Guatemala, near the Mexican border, on drug trafficking, murder and kidnapping charges.

Ortega was acting on behalf of the Guadalajara Archdiocese. He had been tasked by church leaders with investigating the murder of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, who had died in a storm of bullets at the Guadalajara Airport on May 24, 1993.

Mexican officials at the time believed the bullets that killed the cardinal had been meant for Guzmán, who was at the same airport that day. Ortega wanted to interrogate El Chapo.

Why was Guzmán at the airport that day? Where was he going? Who killed the cardinal? There were so many questions.

‘El Chapo owned the prison’

But first, Ortega wanted to know why the hearing was delayed more than 12 hours. The explanation made him furious.

“He said, ‘Look, I had my conjugal visit today. Afterward, I went to the steam room and then had to take a nap so that I could greet you as you deserve,'” Ortega said Guzmán told him with an air of arrogance.

“He was wearing the customary beige uniform,” Ortega said, “but he wasn’t handcuffed. He was totally free. There were two custodians with him.”

Guzmán didn’t behave as a prisoner, Ortega said, but as the man in charge. Custodians acted as his personal assistants. Guzmán ordered them to get coffee and soft drinks for everybody. The custodians immediately complied.

“El Chapo owned the prison at that moment. It was as if he had invited us to his house. He offered coffee to us, knowing full well the hearing was going to last several hours,” Ortega said.

At the time of the 2000 hearing, Guzmán was already the infamous leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, a vast criminal organization that shipped cocaine and heroin by the ton to the United States. He’d been described as far back as 1993 by The Los Angeles Times as “the man widely believed to be Mexico’s top drug trafficker.”

At the hearing, Guzmán said he was 42. He was born on April 4, 1957, in the state of Sinaloa, he testified. Asked what he did for a living, he replied: “I’m a farmer.”

CNN obtained a copy of the deposition. Guzmán testified that he was driving a 1991 white Grand Marquis when he drove to the airport, and that the shooting started as he was walking in and none of his men fired a shot.

Other than that, Guzmán didn’t really provide any piece of relevant information, Ortega said, repeatedly answering questions with: “I don’t recall.”

The hearing lasted until 5 in the morning, Ortega said. He found the experience beyond frustrating.

According to him, it appeared as if the attorney acting as a government prosecutor had coached Guzmán, telling him at one point: “You don’t have to answer that” and, later, “They want to get you.”

‘El Chapo means hatred’

El Chapo would escape the Puente Grande federal prison on January 19, 2001, some 10 months after the hearing with Ortega, cutting short his 20-year sentence.

Citing sources within the military, the attorney insists Guzmán didn’t escape using a laundry cart as the government claimed then, but freely walking through the main gate with the help and complacency of prison officials.

He would be captured on February 24, 2014, in the Mexican beach resort of Mazatlán only to escape again on July 11 of the following year using a mile-long tunnel fitted with a lighting and ventilation system as well as a modified motorcycle that ran on tracks.

Ortega is one of a handful of prosecutors who have ever interrogated the drug lord and, now that Guzmán is again behind bars after his January capture, is now seeking to interrogate him again.

The case into the death of Cardinal Posadas Ocampo is still open.

“El Chapo means hatred, means death. He’s somebody who poisons young people not only in Mexico, but also in the United States with his drugs. El Chapo means corruption and impunity,” Ortega said.

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